How to Ferment Everything

Don’t fear the ferment! In seven simple fermentation steps you can preserve anything that grows in your garden.

by Jesse Frost
How to Ferment Everything - Photo courtesy Susy Morris/Flickr (
Courtesy Susy Morris/Flickr

When we think of fermented foods, wine and chocolate might come to mind, along with sauerkrautyogurt and kimchi, but the world of fermented foods hardly stops there. In fact, it doesn’t really stop anywhere. If you can grow it, you can likely ferment it. Be it kohlrabi, radishes, peppers or pumpkins, mind these seven rules and you’ll find there is almost no limit to what can be pickled.

1. Be Creative

In choosing your vegetables, don’t feel limited to what you have seen fermented before—like cucumbers or cabbage. Think about a ferment like you might a stew. Combine vegetables, and combine flavors. If basil or dill sounds like it might be a good compliment to your veggies, throw some in. Chili flakes, juniper berries, fennel seed, lemon zest, apples—anything you suspect would enhance the flavor will probably enhance the ferment, as well.

2. Pick Your Vessel

The vessels you can choose to make your ferment in are numerous, but avoid reactive metals or any material that might impart unwanted flavors. People primarily use clay crocks and glass jars for fermenting, though traditionally, a pit in the ground lined with leaves was a common fermentation vessel. So, needless to say, there’s some flexibility here.

3. Think Bite-Sized

You or someone you know will probably be eating this ferment, so as you’re preparing the ingredients think about the size of the bites and what’s in them. Chop your garlic fine, or leave it whole, but large chunks of garlic, ginger or hot pepper may be an unwelcome surprise. You can also grate your veggies instead of chopping or leave them whole, as in some kimchi recipes. Knowing how you’ll use the ferment—condiment, snack or side dish—obviously helps to know how to prepare it. Of course, oftentimes it’s the finished ferment that lets you know how it will be used.

4. Respect the Brine

Most vegetables can be chopped or grated, lightly sprinkled with salt, massaged until wet, then stuffed into a jar to ferment under their own juices. However, for vegetables you wish to remain whole— cucumbers and beans for example—brining is best.

To make a brine, use a ratio of at least 1½ to 2 tablespoons salt per quart of water. (Sea salt or kosher salt is preferred, though about any salt will work.) If you have issues eating salt, use less. Salt helps encourage the lactic acid bacteria you want, while slowing and preserving the ferment, so even a pinch is a good idea. As for the water, it must be non-chlorinated. Most tap water is chlorinated and thus will not properly ferment. Spring water is best.

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Pack your veggies tightly into your vessel. Dissolve salt into room-temperature water and pour over the vegetables until covered. Some might add a little whey to the brine to inoculate it with lactic acid bacteria, which is fine, though not typically necessary if fully submerged.

5. Submerge

Whether using the vegetables’ natural juices or a salt brine to ferment your veggies, the solids must remain under the liquid in order to avoid spoilage or mold. If you’re using a crock, a large plate with a clean rock or bag of water on top can work to weigh down your veggies. In a jar, a small sandwich bag of water by itself is fine. Again, whatever you use, make sure it keeps the solids down and will not affect the flavor of your ferment. If needed, top off the ferment with a little water until submerged. But to avoid spillover, the liquid should be at least 1 inch below the top of your vessel and 2 inches for larger vessels.

6. Cover Up

Tightly tying a cloth over your vessel will help keep bugs out. Bugs won’t spoil vegetable ferments as much as they will wine ferments, however, and fermentation is inherently sanitizing. If a bug gets in and you toss the bug but not the ferment, we won’t tell.

7. Keep Cool

Allow produce to ferment on the countertop for at least seven days, then move it to a dark, cool place once the microbial activity visibly slows down. (A cellar or refrigerator is best—cool temperatures slow microbial activity.) Taste throughout the process, and decide for yourself when it’s ready. If leaving in a crock, keep it in a cool basement or cellar, periodically checking for, and removing, any white surface growths or browning of the veggies that occurs. If colorful or black molds form, the ferment is probably no longer safe.

Of course, there is a lot more to be said about fermentation—meat and dairy, for example, have different considerations—but armed with these simple rules you should feel confident in your ability to ferment just about everything the garden has to offer.

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